I live in silence. I can’t write if music plays, let alone while someone talks. Listening with my nose in a book gets a little easier as long as the lyrics don’t distract me. If it weren’t for my husband, I’d probably live out my days in absolute quiet.
He listens to music as he cycles on his stationary bike, unable as yet to hit the bike trails. He plays opera in the morning and rock and roll at night. Occasionally, I’ll hear him chuckle as he listens to last night’s stand-up comics skewer US politicians. He hasn’t discovered podcasts yet but it won’t take long.
Because I’ve realized that there are times and circumstances when listening to a podcast makes a whole lot of sense.
On the road
While we were still traveling, podcasts were my solution to transit boredom. Our journey involved loads of flights, trains, ferries, and buses. Tack onto that the waiting times and that’s a lot of hours to while away. And because I’m prone to severe motion sickness, reading is a dangerous thing to do. So if I can’t read a story on my own, then the next best thing is to let someone read to me.
I like the New Yorker fiction podcast. It appears once a month. The format is straightforward.
[T]o ask contemporary New Yorker fiction writers to choose stories by other authors that had appeared in the magazine at any time since its début, in 1925, read those stories, and discuss them with me.Deborah Treisman, A Decade of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast” in the New Yorker, 31 Dec 2019
For me, this is a win-win. Some of the best of American short fiction lives in the New Yorker archive. Podcasts give me the chance to listen to classics I might not otherwise find. On top of that, there’s the discussion between Treisman, New Yorker fiction editor, and some of the best contemporary writers around. They talk craft, reminisce about the author, sometimes devolve into giggles or gossip.
The format requires a guest, whether she dials in from a remote location or joins Treisman in the WNYC studio where the series is produced. The lockdown in New York City has brought an end to all that. The April 2020 podcast featured Treisman in her apartment reading a story by David Foster Wallace and correspondence they had once exchanged before his suicide in 2008.
A podcast on a dead author could have been a depressing experience but for the glorious story Treisman chose. I listened in amazement to “Good People”. A young, deeply religious couple faces an unwanted pregnancy. They know the choices but cannot speak of them. Wallace tightens the cord of tension through deflection. The current of the non-conversation runs on as we gaze at a river, notice a man stroll by, follow his gaze to a group of fishermen ready to cast off.
In some sense, this is all work for me. At least one New Yorker podcast has directly inspired my fiction writing. Others I use in the course of my research for this blog or other nonfiction work.
For example, The Little Red Podcast is hosted by two Australians, both China experts. Graeme Smith is a China studies academic at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs. Louisa Lim is a former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now at the Centre for Advancing Journalism, Melbourne University.
I like listening to their take on Chinese current affairs from beyond the Beltway. Australia has its own complex relationship with China, involving trade, investment, and immigration. The guests tend to come from inside China, embedded within the fabric of that society. As research goes, this is a pretty easy pill to swallow.
For a feature article I’m working on as we speak, I’m also delving into the history of pandemics. The going here is a little rougher. My way is strewn with great boulders of epidemiological, statistical, and geopolitical literature. I’m looking forward to listening to Throughline on what we can learn from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
Listening for work shouldn’t be my only podcast use. There’s listening for pleasure, too. While we were traveling, I stumbled upon the Open Ears Project. The Open Ears Project touches the intersection of music and emotion by asking its guests to choose a work that is significant to them.
Sadly, the podcast ended after one short season and I am now in search of something new. I’d like to balance out my US-centric listening. In these days of isolation and limited resources, the BBC’s Desert Island Discs makes sense. Philip Roth allegedly liked it. Why shouldn’t I?
Sticky Notes is a podcast hosted by Joshua Weilerstein. He is a violinist, conductor, and the artistic director of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. He sees this podcast as a form of community outreach, which he’s been doing since 2017 and still going strong. Sticky Notes is a combination of classical music, a deep dive into the world of musicians, with the occasional report on Covid developments from the perspective of a conductor in locked down Switzerland.
Or perhaps I should feed my baker’s geek side with Modernist Bread Crumbs. This podcast promises listeners everything they ever wanted to know about bread and more. Flat breads, breads with holes, ancient grains, you name it. Perhaps, by listening, I’ll be inspired to find a new home project.